Monday, March 18, 2013

The Saiga Antelope

            Saiga antelope have an extremely distinctive appearance with an enlarged nose that hangs down over the mouth. Despite their common name these ungulates are thought to be intermediates between antelope and sheep. The coat is sparse and cinnamon-buff in the summer but becomes white and around 70 percent thicker in winter. The underbelly is light in colour throughout the year, and there is a small mane on the underside of the neck. Mature males have almost vertical horns; these are semi translucent and are ringed in the bottom sections.

            The saiga typically stands 0.6–0.8 m (1 ft 10 in–2 ft 7 in) at the shoulder and weighs between 36 and 63 kg (79 and 140 lb). The horned males are larger than the polled females. Their lifespans range from 6 to 10 years. The saiga is recognizable by an extremely unusual, over-sized, flexible nose structure, the proboscis.

Did You Know

            The saiga antelope is active mostly during the day, although it may rest at midday.  A nomadic species, saiga have no fixed home ranges and usually walk several dozen kilometers in a given day.  The saiga is an extremely good runner, and is able to reach speeds up to 80 kmph / 48 mph.  Populations undertake seasonal migrations, moving north in the spring to the summer grazing grounds, and returning southward in the fall. Covering 80-120 km / 48-72 miles per day, saiga march with their heads low to the ground, with their specialized noses filtering out the stirred up dust from the air.

Scientific Classification


Other Names

Saiga Antelope
Antílope Saiga


            Classified as Critically Endangered (CR) on the IUCN Red List 2007, and listed on Appendix II of CITES. It is also listed on Appendix II of the Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species (CMS or Bonn Convention). Subspecies: Mongolian saiga (Saiga tatarica mongolica) classified as Endangered (EN) and the Russian saiga (S. t. tatarica) is Critically Endangered (CR) on the IUCN Red List 2007.


            Historically, this was a common species in Eurasian steppes and semi-deserts. From information provided in recent references it appears that between 1991 and 1994, the global population of S. tatarica was relatively stable at just under one million animals, the majority of which were in Kazakhstan (approximately 810,00–825,000). However, the population in Kazakhstan had fallen to around 570,000 animals by 1998.

            In European Russia (Kalmykia), the Saiga population steeply declined after land reclamation of the Volga basin started, but the species remained numerous within the distribution area. In the 1970s the population recovered to ca.700,000–800,000 as a result of hunting regulation. However, since then the population has drastically declined. In 1980 there were an estimated 380,000 individuals, in 1996 there were 196,000, and by 2000 just 26,000. 2001 for annual survey results for 1980–2000). At present there are no more than 18,000 animals in Kalmykia. Sex ratio is severely skewed; the proportion of males varies from 1 to 10% in different years.


            Saigas typically inhabit open dry steppe and semi desert grasslands of Central Asia and Pre-Caspian region. They prefer open areas free from dense vegetation where they can avoid predators such as wolves and humans.


            Saiga tatarica inhabited the steppes and semi-desert regions of south-eastern Europe and Central Asia from the Precaspian steppes to Mongolia and western China. Currently, there is one population in Russia (Kalmykia) and three in Kazakhstan, although in winter some animals reach Uzbekistan and even northern Turkmenistan. A distinctive subspecies occurs in western Mongolia. Saiga became extinct in China by the 1960s, and in Ukraine in the 18th century.


            Saiga is nomadic animals and undertakes seasonal migrations from summer pastures in steppe grassland to winter pastures in desert areas. Large groups of saiga migrate southwards to the winter grounds, covering up to 72 miles in a day. The rut begins in late November and males gather groups of around 30 females in ‘harems’, which they defend aggressively. During the rut, males’ noses swell up and the hair tufts below the eyes are covered in a sticky secretion. Males do not feed much during the rutting season, when they take part in violent fights that often end in death. The male mortality rate can reach 90 percent during this time, due to exhaustion. Surviving males begin to migrate north at the end of April.

            Females give birth at this time, usually to two young, which are initially concealed in vegetation; all the females within the herd will give birth within a week of each other. Once the calves are a few days old, the whole herd breaks into smaller herds which head northwards to the summer feeding grounds. Once there, smaller groups break off, reforming again for the journey south the following autumn.

            Saiga grazes on a number of different grasses, herbs and shrubs. The unusual swollen nose is thought to filter out airborne dust during the dry summer migrations and to enable cold winter air to be warmed before it reaches the lungs.


            All the saiga populations have suffered from habitat degradation, poaching and disturbance. Droughts or severe winters, diseases and predation pressure from wolves can also act as threats of saiga populations, although these are unlikely to be major causes of the decline.

            Saiga within the former Soviet Union was the subject of concerted conservation programmes, so much so that the population reached almost one million individuals. Management of the species has now broken down however and illegal poaching is rife. Saiga horns are highly valued in traditional Chinese medicine as cures for illnesses such as strokes. Only the males of the species bear horns and poaching thus produces a population where there are far more females than males. The average life span of saiga is only around three to four years and if females do not mate every year the species can rapidly decline.

            Another main cause of the saiga's decline is the overgrazing of its pastures, general habitat degradation and construction of roads and canals. Before 1991 numbers of livestock, particularly sheep increased enormously. As a result the quality of the pastures for saiga has deteriorated

Conservation Measures

            The saiga antelope’s listing on Appendix II of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) means that any trade in this species should be carefully monitored. Hunting is banned throughout the saiga’s range. Further research into saiga reproductive behaviour is needed to assess the impact of hunting and this may be used to produce an effective conservation action plan.

            In order to conserve this species, protected areas for lambing and rutting should be established where saiga populations are present. Given that poaching for domestic consumption is now a major threat, strengthening of anti-poaching law enforcement is crucial. It is considered to be more important to fund national conservation action than to improve the international trade control


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